President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a live televised address on easing lockdown measures in a closed bar in Paris, France, November 24 2020. Picture: NATHAN LAINE/BLOOMBERG
President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a live televised address on easing lockdown measures in a closed bar in Paris, France, November 24 2020. Picture: NATHAN LAINE/BLOOMBERG

Paris — French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he will gradually lift a nationwide restrictions from Saturday, as he attempts to avoid a resurgence of the coronavirus and damaging fits and starts for the economy.

Small stores will be permitted to open from November 28 with extra rules, after weeks of shopkeepers criticising the government’s decision to ban retail it deemed non-essential. Restaurants will remain closed, however, until at least January 20, depriving the sector of the income from one of the busiest periods of the year.

The French President said the time required to get a Covid-19 vaccination programme running means vaccines won’t be available until the end of December or early January.

“We have put the brake on the circulation of the virus,” Macron said in a televised address on Tuesday. “But a few weeks are still needed to reach our targets” of 5,000 cases a day and up to 3,000 people in intensive care units (ICU).

The lockdown will be lifted on December 15 if targets are reached, and at that point cinemas, theatres and museums will be allowed to reopen. Institut Pasteur projects 1,500 people in ICU by mid-December, Les Echos reported earlier.

Macron faces a challenge to plot a course between containing the spread of the virus, repairing an already battered economy, and responding to a growing backlash against his decisions.

Even if the number of deaths and hospitalisations recently stabilised, French health-care staff and public hospitals remain under pressure with more than 80% of initial intensive care capacity taken up by Covid patients. Meanwhile, the economy is slumping despite restrictions being looser than during the first lockdown, and Macron’s government has been drawn into acrimonious debates over the closure of small stores.

The debacle culminated in the state micromanaging which aisles of which stores should close and battling criticism that the measures would fuel the French appetite for online shopping, and especially Amazon.

High uncertainty

By gradually lifting restrictions, the government aims to prevent another lockdown if the virus circulation spiked again. Yet statistics agency Insee said last week that even if lockdown ended on December 1, economic output would still contract 2.5% in the final quarter of the year. The government last week cut its own growth forecast for 2021 to 6% from 8% as it warned of prolonged uncertainty.

“We must do everything to avoid a third wave, to avoid a third lockdown,” Macron said. “Each and every one of us has a part of the solution in their hands.”

During the December holidays, when many French people travel to visit their families, domestic travel will be allowed, Macron said.

To support the businesses hit by the prolonged closures, the government is working on extra financial help for bars, hotels and restaurants, finance minister Bruno Le Maire told Bloomberg on Monday, adding that “it will take months” before vaccines effectively protect the population. He will revise forecasts for public finances early in December as the additional state support pushes deficits and public debt higher.

The prolonged lockdown is also inflating corporate debt as companies rely on loans to stay afloat.

Macron said he would increase aid for about 200,000 shuttered businesses that can already get as much as €10,000 a month from a solidarity fund. If it is more advantageous, those firms will now be able to claim 20% of their 2019 revenue from the state up to a limit of €100,000, the finance ministry said.

“They are all essential to the life our nation,” Macron said. “I understand the sacrifices we have asked them to make, which is why we are providing this extra aid.”

France, which is working on its vaccination strategy, has already signed three contracts with drugmakers, and is in advanced talks for at least three other deals, according to government spokesperson Gabriel Attal.

Vaccination won’t be compulsory, Macron said, and the campaign could start as early as the end of December for the most fragile people. He added that France and the EU had secured enough doses.


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